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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 2 (September-October 1950)

Colour in the Home

page 37

Colour in the Home

By E. Mervyn Taylor: Black and white wood cut of still-life of chair and roses.

In previous articles I have stressed practical considerations such as comfort, convenience, ease of cleaning and maintenance and also the practical and æsthetic values of simplicity. All that I have said applies equally to colours.

As in many things the selection of colours for decoration and furniture is usually a matter of compromise but I do not want to create the impression that the compromise is a middle tone of neutral tint. I mention compromise merely because there are so many conflicting points to be considered, and to prepare you for a thoughtful process of arriving at the most precise balance between them, never forgetting that if you play too safe the result will almost certainly be dull. It is better to make a positive mistake than to achieve negative dullness.

Colour determines mood

Colour is probably the most important single factor in furnishing. It determines character and mood—whether grave or gay, restful or lively.

Everything in a room, walls and ceiling, floor with carpet or rugs, curtains, the furniture, light fittings, pictures and so on—all contribute to the complete colour scheme. The colours of walls and floor should serve to unify the scheme, and being the largest areas of colour tend to control the character of the room. These colours should be chosen with the realization that they will be the background against which most things in the room will be seen. The most accommodating colours as backgrounds, those with which almost every colour will go are unfortunately nondescript greys, buffs, and creams. The excessive use of these is one of the chief faults of decoration today. Much more interesting results can be obtained by taking a bolder line and choosing clearer colours especially for the walls. As the area of the walls is considerable, strong colours are not necessary but a pale clear yellow, green, pink or blue can be very successful. The colours selected for these larger areas, walls, ceilings and floor, should be reasonably light because lightness is essential to a cheery atmosphere as well as being necessary to seeing well. On the other hand don't have the colours, especially that of your floor, so light that every speck of dirt shows.

In selecting background colours there are many things to be considered. If your room is sunny, to use yellow or a warm buff or pink could create too hot and dazzling an effect. In this case a pale green or blue might be more suitable. The converse is even more true, that a room which does not get the sun needs cheering up with a warm yellow or pink. A room that is used only occasionally such as a spare bedroom or perhaps a dining room, can well be decorated with a more lively and exciting colour scheme than one might use for a living room or a bedroom in continuous use.

Generally speaking the smaller an area of colour, the stronger it can be without disturbing the scheme. Curtains may be of stronger colour and more lively pattern than the walls. Upholstery, provided there is not too much of it, can be stronger again. In this connection there is the nice story of the Empress Josephine who made a rival in a blue dress sit beside her on a green sofa throughout an evening party. She herself wore white and looked delicious. Try to avoid large quantities of any colour likely to clash with the dresses of your friends when they come to see you. This is a point on which you will have to make a judicious compromise because, as I said before, if you play too safe the result will probably be dull.

Harmony and contrast

Harmony and contrast both have their place in every successful colour scheme and these are things not easily put into words. The principal colours used in a scheme of decoration must definitely be in harmony with one another but if the scheme is to have life there must in addition be some contrast. I know that I am now about to tread on thin ice and may be misunderstood, especially as words may not mean quite the same to everybody. However, here is some idea of the colours that harmonize and of those that are not likely to do so.

Few colours are pure

It is seldom that pure colours are used. For instance, most blues contain either a greater or lesser amount of yellow on the one hand or red on the other. Similarly most yellows incline towards the orange or towards the green. In addition few colours are fully saturated, and are either somewhat diluted with white, making them paler, or on the other hand diluted with grey, making them darker, but in either case less brilliant than the saturated colour would be.

There are few, if any, absolute rules of colour harmony, but there are a few ideas that help. If you are using, for example, a main colour based on yellow that is slightly green, it is usually best to avoid any large quantity of a yellow which verges towards the orange. Similarly, a blue containing red, i.e., purplish blue, will probably not go with a greenish blue, and so on for the other colours.

Colours are said to be complementary to one another when they would produce a neutral grey if mixed together. For instance yellow is complementary to violet—blue to orange—red to green, and so on. Colours that are complementary will usually harmonize but care must be taken to ensure that they really are complementary especially if it is desired to use them in strong concentrations.

More subtle and complicated harmonies can be developed with three or four colours which when mixed would produce a neutral grey or black.

Contrast, too, may be of several different kinds. The simplest is probably that of light against dark and this may apply whether the colours are the same or different. Then there is the contrast that occurs when two different colours page 38 are used even though they may be in harmony. The strongest contrast of this sort is obtained when complementary colours are used in pure saturated form. Contrasts of colours not in harmony, are only for the use of those among us with real talent.

Contrast, although it must be present, should be used with great discretion or a harsh, restless effect will be produced. Strong contrasting colours should be used only in small amounts. For instance, if you have a green carpet, the selection of a red upholstery material would probably be a mistake, but a red cushion or two might be used about the room to good effect. Or a bowl of red roses on a low table might be beautifully set off against such a carpet. It could well happen though, that if you had the red cushions and the red roses too, that the roses would lose their value due to the distraction provided by the cushions.

Cheerful, individual and practical

Never forget in designing the colour scheme that your house and the rooms in it are to be lived in and consequently you should aim to make people happy and comfortable, Light, clear colours are cheerful, neutralized colours and especially blues and greys are restful, while strong heavy colours, especially browns, purples and black, are depressing. If you aim at too spectacular a colour scheme, you may find that a relatively small change such as a friend coming in with a blue dress, or drawing the curtains in the evening and thus increasing the amount of them seen, will upset your carefully worked out balance. Aim to be cheerful and individual, but never forget to be practical about it all.


The effect of texture is closely allied to that of colour, but while colour is a purely visual quality, texture has to do also with the sense of touch. In fact, even when a surface is only seen and not touched, the visual impression is partly translated into a knowledge of how it would feel to touch that surface. As with colour, both harmony of texture and contrast have their place. The largest surfaces in your decorative scheme should have textures in reasonable harmony. For instance, if your curtains are of a coarse type of weave it is unlikely that a silk brocade would be a happy choice for an upholstery material, but a homespun tweed probably would. Again, the high finish associated with french polished mahogany furniture should not be associated too closely with the rougher textures of oak, for instance. However, in texture too, contrast has its place when used with discretion. A satin-covered cushion or two, as relatively small accents, can be used successfully on pieces upholstered in a much coarser textured material.

It is not a bad general rule to avoid trying to match the colours of materials of differing texture. Oblique light casts a multitude of tiny shadows in a rough material and darkens it. This is enough to destroy the match without making enough difference to be interesting. Glossy paint and flat paint or distemper, for instance, are better kept a few shades apart or of quite different colours where they occur in the same scheme. In the same way it is better not to try for an exact match between carpet and furnishing fabrics.


A word about artificial lighting. The lighting arrangements for a room are a utilitarian matter. During the day they are of no use and when evening comes they should give light without calling attention to themselves. I think that both doctors and illumination engineers will agree that one should not look at the source of light and therefore light fittings should be as unobtrusive as possible. They should certainly not be highly decorated eye-catchers, nor should the bulb or tube be visible from normal viewpoints. It is good for both decorative and visual reasons if at least some of the things illuminated are brighter to the eye than any part of the fitting normally seen.

For good decorative effect some noticeable difference in intensity of light is needed. An even overall brilliance is better than overall dullness, but a much more interesting effect is produced when pools of light produced by individual fittings at the places where they are most useful are added to a moderate general illumination.